It was 1919. I knew this, because my owner bought newspapers, and read them to me from the head of the table. His Hearth was weak. He did not care much for his home, and he brought many people into it, none of them for very long. His heart did not burn. It was cold and chilled the house around him. But nonetheless, he was my owner, and I cared deeply for him. He was a tall man, and not very well-dressed. He tended to favor very silly looking turbans. I was merely an apartment, and not particularly skilled in the ways of human fashion, but even I could tell that they were ridiculous.
For his hobbies, he studied endlessly, and was surprisingly popular with a number of women. He talked very sweetly to them in bars, plied them with liquor, and returned them to his home. Sometimes they left in the morning. Sometimes they didn’t. I didn’t know much about human love, either, but I gathered that this was not it. And I watched him as he taught me many things, by reading, by working, and by talking out loud to himself.
I winced with pain as he pried open the boards of my floor, and lowered two great steamer trunks down into the pipes below, filling them with the books that he did not trust his guests with. But even in this I took a certain satisfaction, knowing that my pain was for the purpose of helping him. I would read over his shoulder as he paged through his books, and marvel at the many things he learned.
Then, one evening, he sat at the head of the table. He prepared an elaborate meal, wine, and small honey cakes, and provided settings for two. I waited until the incense had almost burned down, and then I could not hold back my desire any longer. I sat across from him, and smiled, my shape insubstantial, almost gauzy. “Hello, owner.” I smiled sweetly.
“Ah, my little house-Lar. Apartment 4-B.” He smiled, and held out a small marble statue, and I felt the urge to touch it become unbearable. I did, and suddenly, I had form. I had shape. I was like a person, able to express my love and my affection for my owner. “What a lovely shape you have.”
I reached out to touch him. He took the steak knife from the table, and drove the blade into my chest, over and over again. It hurt a great deal, even more than having my boards pried up. After all, that was just the thoughtless carelessness of an owner. This was intentional. I struggled and writhed, and became insubstantial again, wounded, and shaking.
A week passed. He set the table again. This time I did not appear. “Come, Lar. You can’t stay away from the offerings. I’m sorry that I hurt you before. It was simply one of my episodes. Don’t try to touch me, and it won’t happen again.” He wheedled, his voice kind, and gentle. I materialized, and sat across from him. “You shouldn’t touch. Not unless you are told. To do otherwise is disrespectful” I thought of the women who visited him. Especially the ones who didn’t leave in the morning. “Oh, yes. I know, it’s a terrible quirk. A curse from god, I sometimes like to think. But it does seem to sharpen my mind.” His fingers were tightening around the knife. “I stabbed you quite hard. And yet, here you are, good as new?”
“It hurt,” I whispered. He snorted, waving a hand dismissively.
“Oh, pain. Pain is just a momentary sensation. A learning experience. You now know a very important lesson, and that is not to touch without asking.” He smiled. “In a way, it’s a kind of kindness, that pain. Yes, I think that you should show a little more appreciation for that gift. You horrid wretched IMPERTINENT-” His hand was around my collar, dragging me across the table, and I had a very unpleasant time of things. But he was right. It hurt less the second time, as I had already experienced excruciating pain, and once you understood it, it lost much of its terror. As I sat upright, immaterial once more, I decided that there was much I could learn from him.
The third time I manifested, this time without his permission, he stabbed me violently, screaming that I had no right, no right to come without being called. The fourth time I manifested, I grabbed his wrist, and pummeled him like a side of meat, yanking the knife out of his hands, and leaving him bleeding on the floor, laughing softly.
“Well, my dear, you are a quick study. Didn’t it feel good? To be strong enough to force someone to respect you?” I looked down at the knife. It had hurt so damn much. I approached him, and he smiled. “Oh, do you want revenge? I won’t stop you, but perhaps you should consider something very carefully. If I should die like that, it will be very suspicious. People may start to hate this building, fear it. And then, they’d come and tear down your walls, and rip you apart. You are strong, after all, strong enough to survive whatever I might do, whereas I would die if you weren’t careful with that thing.” He grinned up at me, and I felt my grip grow slack. In a moment, he was up, and I was down. At this point, the sensation of being stabbed violently had become almost pedestrian, so that I was more annoyed than terrified and pained when he’d finished.
“Little Four Bee? Little Four Bee, come out, come out.” He laughed, as he prepared dinner. I appeared, reluctantly, and he smiled. “Do you know why I hurt you, Four Bee?” I shook my head. “It’s to teach you to respect me. Respect is everything in this world, you know. I show you respect as my house Lar, feed you, provide you with worship, and all those little things that you need. And in response, then, it is your duty to show me respect. And I do apologize, if I am harsh. But you can take it, can’t you? Strong little goddess that you are.” He grinned, one of his teeth obviously missing from where I had struck him.
“I’m sorry for hitting you.”
“Oh, you’re not. Don’t worry. You will be, by the time I’m done with you. But what you must understand is that I am not doing this because I hate you. Quite the opposite. You are a fascinating creature. I want to see what you are capable of, my little 4-B. You are both so much less, and so much more than a human.” He laughed. I hated the way he said my name. The way that he gently drew his nails across the paint on my walls, chipping it, sawing at my nerves. It seemed that even as I became more resistant to the pain of being stabbed, the little pains, the niggling little things that he did, grew worse. Like the varnish had been scraped off my floorboards with a chisel.
I watched as his appetites continued to grow. He made me dispose of the bodies, rendering them unrecognizable, and drifting away down through the pipes of the building. He fed me on the other Lares of the building, rituals sending me through the walls to consume the quiet proto-spirits in the other rooms. They were barely even a ripple of energy, let alone a sapient creature, but I knew that I was killing my own kind nevertheless. It was that, however, or he promised he would destroy me, and choose one of the other spirits to nurture. The knowledge that I had no choice did not soothe my guilt. It only enraged me.
My master’s habits surely would’ve caught up to him sooner or later. They could not go unnoticed forever. He was clever, but not as clever as he thought. Things came to a head, however, when he brought home the girl. I never knew her name. I knew that she wore shoes with sharp heels, and walked clumsily in them. They scraped along my floorboards. She dropped her purse on my floor, and was messily sick on the tiles of my bathroom. She’d drunk too much. I grabbed a knife, and did something that, in other circumstances, would have made my owner very proud.
“Are you pleased with yourself?” he asked, his eyes narrowed as he stood over me.
I continued cutting. I was strong enough that the knife slid easily through the corpse. Humans weren’t all that mysterious once they were opened. They had bones instead of foundations and load-bearing walls, skin instead of wallpaper, strange fleshy pipes. They didn’t seem all that special to me. I was aware that he was looking very tense. “Yes. That was a lot more fun than being stabbed.” I was lying, but it seemed like the right thing to tell him. It had been a sudden, desperate thing. I didn’t want to kill her. She was a person, after all, and I was made to protect people from the elements, from those who would harm them. But something deep inside of me had been screaming to be released. I wondered if this was what my owner felt like all the time. I felt a bit closer to him.
“Well, damn well clean her up. We need to get rid of her. Gods, I hope nobody heard her.”
I looked down at the body. “You know, owner, I believe you can deal with this one. After all, it won’t be my fault if you die. It will be the police.” I leaned forward, and kissed him on the cheek, and vanished as he screamed profanity and lunged at me. And then, I watched. I watched the police arrive. I watched him panic as they found the body he had so inexpertly tried to hide. I watched as they searched the apartment, but did not find the texts that he had so carefully hidden. And then, I waited.
And waited enough that a literal-minded person might have filled dozens of pages out of a book with the words ‘And waited’, in a vain attempt to communicate the timeless stretches of watching people move in and out of the building, attempt to demolish it, be thwarted by my subtle influences, and move on. As time passed, I found myself growing ossified. People moved in, and out. They did not treat the house with respect, but I couldn’t feel it. I had gone without worship, unacknowledged, for so long that I didn’t even notice it. Then, one day, in the late summer, I was awoken from a sound sleep by the scraping of a chair.
I could feel the three people in my apartment. They were not good tenants. They were petty thieves and lived in this neighborhood because no one lived here who could afford not to. They stole things, and they treated me with no respect. I waited, for weeks, months, trying to be patient. But every careless mistake, every dropped chemical, every offense, scraped me bare. They did not show me any of the respect that I deserved. I was a goddess. I was powerful. I menaced them, at first, moving objects, leaving warnings, but they did not take it seriously. They blamed each other.
And so, one crisp autumn day, I fell back into old habits. They didn’t deserve it. But I couldn’t help myself.
When the police had turned up, and the blood was cleaned off, I was put up for sale. By that point, I had grown somewhat resigned to the fact that I was unlikely to ever have a proper owner. Perhaps it was just as well. The idea of finding someone who owned me rankled. The first human who had owned me had tried to control me, and it had hurt. It had been excruciating. Perhaps if that was what humans had to offer, I was better off without it.
A succession of people came to see the apartment. I did not make them feel welcome. Maybe I would be condemned. I had decayed, my shape becoming twisted over the many long years. It had been so long since I’d had the small statue to guide me. Even if it were still a part of the building, I didn’t want to take the shape that my first owner had given me.
The day the human came to see me was a warm summer day. He was not remarkable. I did not take the effort to differentiate between one human and another. They were all the same. I tried to warn him away, but the human was destitute. His name was Horace Creed, and he did not have a good life. He was not homeless, not the lowest of the low. But he was aimless, drifting, serving an uncle he didn’t care for. He could not afford to live elsewhere. He complained bitterly to the open air of the world’s injustice, and I was inclined to agree with him. The world was not fair.
It was on the first night that I realized he was warm. I hadn’t felt a sensation quite like it. When he scalded me with hot food, he wiped it away, cleaning the messes that he had made, soothing away the burns that it caused. When he scuffed me or hurt me, he cleaned me, and made things right. He cared about his home, and cared for me. He showed me respect. He hurt me, but at the same time, it was not intentional, and he tried to make up for it. I had never met someone who regretted hurting me. The small actions that he took made me feel strange. For someone to care about me was more terrifying, more painful than anything my first master had done.
I sat beside his bed at night, resting a hand on his. He slept fitfully. I knew the reputation I had. People died within me. And yet, he seemed to sleep better with my hand on his. I watched him silently. “Why do you stay here?” I whispered softly. I became insubstantial as he jerked up, his eyes flickering around wildly. He lay back down again, and I stayed by his side. There was something unusual about him. Not just his care, but the impression he gave me in his Hearth. It was soft and gentle, and it made me feel as though I was not simply a tool, but something special. Perhaps it was my own imagination making a fool of me, but I hoped otherwise. It felt good to have an owner who cared. It began to give me some hope. Someday I could show myself to him. He might even want to help me. I even dreamed he might forgive me for what I’d done.
Then he brought home the cat.
Mind-numbing, soul-searing terror rushed through me when the animal first entered the house. At first, I took it for another house-Lar, and could not understand where the instinctive dread came from. I couldn’t see its domain. Then, I realized the sheer scope of the creature’s domain, and what I was dealing with. On the second night, as the human went to sleep, the cat padded into the living room, and changed. She licked herself dextrously for several minutes, and then yawned, looking up. She drew a nail across one of the floorboards, and I manifested, enraged, drawing a cleaver from the knife block. I leapt at her, with supernatural speed and strength. She spun me around and pinned me to the ground with one hand.
“Hello, little spirit.” She smiled, her teeth shining in the darkness. I tried to become insubstantial, and found that I could not. She knelt over me, her tail flicking back and forth. “You are an ugly one. You’re a killer, I can tell. A house-spirit gone rotten.” Her claws tightened, and pain prickled along my throat. I hated her instantly. Because she didn’t respect me. Because she was cruel. And because, unlike my first owner, she was much stronger than I was.
“And you? What is a goddess doing acting like a pet to humans?” I attacked in the only way I could. I saw her eyes narrow.
“I could ask the same of you.” She sat up, releasing me. “I trust you will not give me any issues?” She eyed me lazily, her green eyes shining in the low light. “I wouldn’t hesitate to rip this apartment to shreds if you meant any harm to me or my human.” She extended a hand, nails glimmering, and reached towards the floorboards.
“No,” I hissed.
“Good little house-spirit.” She studied me appraisingly. “I am sure that there is a very interesting reason behind what you have done. I am sure that you have good reasons for killing humans, because house spirits do not tend towards violence. But I don’t care what your reasons are. All I care about is that my home is comfortable and that my human is not unduly damaged. If you harm him, I’ll rip you apart.” I bristled. The nerve of her. To march into my apartment, and to claim my occupant. I wanted to flay her apart for her presumptions. For stealing my human. And for the fact that there was nothing that I could do against her. I could feel her power. I was helpless, more than I had ever been.
And so I watched, jealousy warring with self preservation, as she insinuated herself into his life. She took every opportunity to rub her flanks against the furniture inside of me, as though she owned the place. I seethed as I watched, but I could see how happy the human was to have her in his life. He had fond someone he cared for, and it was not me. I had waited too long, and now his Hearth was warming someone else. He had hurt me, just like the others. But it was not his fault. I resolved to kill her.
Opportunity knocked, not long after. The window opened, and the goddess stumbled into the apartment. She was battered, bloody, injured. I could feel her weakness. The moment she stepped in, she began inhaling the Hearth that the human had left in the place. Her body writhing on the bed, she was desperately trying to repair herself. She fed on him, I could see. On the compassion inside of him, and the gentle warmth he showed towards people. It was almost like a Lar, the way she depended on it. I stood over her, a knife in my hand. I thought, for a long time, that I might try to finish the job while she was weak. Reveal myself to the grieving human, promise to protect him.
And how would he respond, finding his cat dead, and a crazed spirit telling him that it was for the best?
The thing came out of the bathtub as I prevaricated. It shouldn’t have been able to enter. If I had been paying attention, it never would have slipped past my threshold. I became insubstantial, and watched as it approached the bedroom. Glee filled me. Here was an opportunity. If the thing took the cat’s life, I could wait for the human to return home, and kill it. A chance to be the hero, to reveal myself by saving him. Too tragically late to save his beloved pet, but…
I watched, as the thing stood in the doorway, its head turning slowly from side to side. Something seemed to be spooking the creature, making it nervous. I urged it silently forward, trying to convince it to go and murder the interloper goddess. This was my chance. It walked to the linen closet. I shivered with disgust as oil-slick feet dragged across the ground, and placed the knife back where it had been in the kitchen. I waited, and hoped that the goddess would die. No such luck. She was a resilient one.
The human returned. I watched as he cared for her. His warmth filled the house, and the goddess drank it in. Warmth that was mine, by right. She was a greedy creature, drinking deep from the Hearth that surrounded him. I watched as he took care of her. Showing her the same care that he showed me. I felt a certain warmth to see him behaving so kindly, and a burning rage to see someone else benefit from it.
While he cared for her, the oily creature slipped out of the bathroom, and made its way to the pantry. I watched it with growing suspicion, trying to figure out what it was planning, or if it was even planning. It seemed distracted, almost insensate, sniffing at the air occasionally. Then, as the human started cooking, it seemed to grow animated. I tried to whisper a warning to him, even as I went for the knife. It had him by the throat even as I lunged for the block. As I wrapped my fingers around the hilt of the butcher’s knife, the cat was on her feet. I drew the knife, and swung, just a bit too late. The goddess beheaded the monster, and was rewarded with the praise.
That night, I appeared to her. She looked at me, annoyed, as she sat on the couch, stretched out languorously. “What do you want, house-spirit?”
“You said that thing came to get revenge on you. It tried to harm my occupant because of your actions.” I tightened my hand around the knife. “Why should I allow you to threaten him?”
“I saved him.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m surprised you let it get close enough to hurt him. If you want me dead, you should do the work yourself. You can’t trust someone else to do it. They might end up killing the human you’re pining after.” She brushed her hair. “Foolish of you to grow so attached to a human. Love is a poison for our kind, you know. If you fall in love with someone so brief, then they’ll only end up betraying you. By dying before you, if nothing else.” I narrowed my eyes.
“It sounds as though you have learned this from experience. Spending too much time in heat, rubbing up against human’s legs?” I asked, my eyes narrowed. Then something struck me, my eyes widening. “How-”
“Did I know that you’re pining after that human? Please, you might as well be humping his leg like a dog, little house-spirit. I had thought it was odd that you had spent so much time around him without attacking him or frightening him off. He makes you feel good, doesn’t he? The way he takes care of you, being kind to you. Even though we both know you’re a monster deep down, he doesn’t. And you’d hate for him to realize how bad you are.” She smirked.
“Perhaps he would find it in himself to forgive me.” The words sounded hollow even to me.
“I wouldn’t show yourself to him. Otherwise, he might be frightened off, and leave you alone again.” She ran a finger across her lips, smiling coyly. “You would just hate that, wouldn’t you, little house-spirit? So, just make sure that he’s safe while he’s here, and everything will be fine. If you care so much for his safety, than it would be a good idea to protect him. I may not be around to watch over him.” She rolled over. “Now, take that body, and dispose of it. It would be terribly inconvenient for your owner if someone found that body here.”
I seethed. But there was nothing I could do. She was right. I disposed of the body, in a manner that I wouldn’t have wanted Horace to see. And then, I simply drifted watched, and was thankful for the care that he put into things. Even if I couldn’t touch him, I could still warm myself by his presence. Then, through no fault of my own, he began to grow curious.
The newspaper was an accident. It was a momentary weakness. I was surprised to see my old owner in the print, and to see what he had claimed. Nobody had ever found out about the other women he had killed. There were even some who thought he was innocent. The idea grated on my nerves like a paint-stripper. Then, calamity. The human began to speak about me, and the damn cat told him everything. She’d betrayed me, and he learned the most unflattering form of the truth. I listened, as he outlined his plan to her. He was going to try to bend me to his will, to control me. To betray me.
And then, little more than a day and a half later, I was sitting, staring down at my hands. They weren’t covered in blood. The trophy was a silly little thing, but it was a symbol of victory, the shape of someone strong. It was beautiful, in its own way. And it sat on the coffee table, a tribute to me, a sign of respect. He thought I was dangerous. And he thought I was worth caring for. I rested my hand on the honey cake, and took a bite. Sweet crystallized sugar filled my mouth, better than anything I’d been given before. I was a person. I was a goddess. Not just a tool. I was Phoebe. And he would show the proper respect.
I looked up at him. He respected the strength that was inside of the goddess cat, and the strength that was in me. He gave me something that I needed. I felt a strange urge, to give something to him. To show that I could be useful, more useful than the goddess. A terrible, traitor impulse, some instinct that marked me forever as a Lar. The need to make a human feel comfortable, to feel sheltered. I had always hated the feeling. But perhaps I simply needed to frame it in a different way.
“You are a man of respect. I will provide you with a boon.” I declared, imperious. I prayed he would not be offended. He had a small grin on his face, and I chose to ignore his amusement. He’d come to respect me in time. I reached down, and pulled up the floorboards, hauling the two steamer trunks onto the floor. “These were the property of my first owner. He was a man of great knowledge, if little wisdom. There are things in here that will help you. And I will help teach you what I know of them. I will make a contract with you, to provide you with power. I will teach you my form of magic.”
His face fell, and he looked disappointed. I didn’t hold it against him. “I’m guessing that when you say your form of magic, you’re not talking about learning how to hurl lightning bolts and fireballs.”
“Why on earth would you wish to learn those things? I am going to teach you House-Magic. The things my power is suited to. Ways to ward this place, and to channel the Hearth inside of you.” He frowned. “If you think that these things are beneath you,” I suggested, my tone sharp as my heart hammered with anxiety and fear of rejection, “then you certainly do not need to accept my gift.”
“No! No, I’m grateful, Phoebe, just…” He frowned. “I want to be strong. I worry, you know? I just feel…”
“As though you cannot protect those you care about,” I whispered softly. “I know the feeling. I cannot act beyond my borders. Every day I must watch you leave, and know that you may never return, and there is nothing I can do to protect you. So, this is the first spell that I have to offer you.” I held the book forward. “It is simple, because it is just a way to communicate with me. Speak these words, and I will draw you back. It does not work from too great a distance- I am strong, but not that strong. But if you are in need of protection, this will bring you back here, to where I am strongest, and where your Hearth is strongest.”
“You said that before. What is Hearth, exactly?”
I frowned. “You know, when you enter a house, it is warmer than the area around it. When you wear clothing, they make you warmer. But they do not create warmth. They simply amplify the warmth that you, yourself, create. That is the nature of shelter. Hearth is much like warmth. Your soul bleeds out around you, the spirit, the emotion that fills you. Some humans radiate cold, draining the life from others. But you are spilling warmth all around you. That power can nourish spirits, making them stronger. The goddess who you care for hungers for Hearth. She devours it. I feed off of it as well, but to a lesser degree. As a Lar, I am more of a container for Hearth than a consumer of it. But it is a good thing for you to be kind. The kindness you show to those who are around you makes your heart stronger. It is the only reason why I allowed you to stay as my occupant.”
He frowned softly. “So… It’s like body-heat for the soul. Betty likes to curl up next to me because I’m warm, and it makes her feel better.” He sighed. “Doesn’t seem very useful.”
“That all depends on your point of view. It is something that not many humans have, particularly not in the sheer abundance you possess. It can make you weak, to give your warmth away so freely. And it is not something most spirits or animals will do. It makes you vulnerable. And yet, your vulnerability can be a strength.” I sat down next to him, placing the book on his lap. He was warm to the touch, and I felt a satisfaction. It was much better than being cold, and empty. Maybe I could convince him to turn the cat out, and to allow me to remain as his protector.
The window opened, and the cat was in the house. She approached, swaying gracelessly, giving me a desultory look of annoyance. “Another stray, Horace?”
“You are the stray.” I said, my arms tightening around him possessively, as he let out a little uncertain noise. Her words were strangely slurred, and she shook her head as though clearing out cobwebs.
“Horace. Things are worse than I thought. I found out what the Church of the Survivor has planned. They’re going to release a plague god in the middle of New York City in a little more than a week.”
“So?” I asked.
Her only response was to collapse to the floor.